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From Igor Sechin to Dick Cheney: the End of Russia's Zuckerberg

Durov's solitude: no heartfelt bonding with Ilya Shebovich or Igor Sechin. Images mixed by author.

Durov's solitude: no heartfelt bonding with Ilya Shebovich or Igor Sechin. Images mixed by author.

Pavel Durov—the “Zuckerberg of Russia” who founded the “Facebook of Russia”—is no longer in Russia. According to the newspaper Izvestia (which has published full-blown baloney about Vkontakte’s creator before), Durov fled the country to a five-star hotel in Dubai. The 29-year-old multimillionaire might not stay there long, however, as Izvestia also reports that Durov has exploited a peculiar “citizenship-by-investment” program in the two-island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies. For the small sum of $250 thousand, Durov supposedly purchased himself Kittitian-Nevisian citizenship, which grants visa-free travel to 131 different countries.

Izvestia’s report is still unconfirmed, but Durov does appear to have migrated virtually from Vkontakte, which he created and managed for over seven years, to Facebook, where he writes in English. Durov’s sudden activity on Facebook is rather astounding, given Vkontakte’s longtime competition against the American service. In February this year, Durov even joked in public that nothing would reverse Facebook’s “slow death.” What’s died instead, it seems, is Durov’s opposition to the world’s largest social network. For now, anyway, his fight against adversaries inside Russia has eclipsed the old rivalry with Zuckerberg.

In a short “farewell” message published on April 28, 2014, on his VK page, Durov reposted a short comic that he released in May 2012 (“at a peak of Russia’s citizen activism”) promoting several libertarian political goals for society (economic autonomy for Russia’s regions, lower taxes for the “postindustrial economy,” and so on). Until Russia makes these improvements, Durov says, returning to the country “would be meaningless.”

“Economic autonomy for the regions.” Pavel Durov's cartoon political manifesto.

Since April 24, 2014, Durov has written twice on his Facebook account. First, he asked readers to suggest “a new home” for his team of software engineers. On April 28, he gloated after the United States levied sanctions against Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, a Putin ally, whom Durov has blamed for ousting him from Vkontakte. Rumors of Sechin’s influence over Russia’s largest social network have circulated for over a year, ever since Ilya Sherbovich’s United Capital Partners bought 48 percent of the company in mid-April 2013.

Following Durov’s formal dismissal last week, Vedomosti newspaper began investigating the connection between Sherbovich and Sechin, trying to determine if Vkontakte’s founder is correct when he claims that his website is now under the latter’s “total control.” The results of Vedomosti’s research are inconclusive. The report suggests that Sherbovich may have played a part in legitimizing Rosneft’s acquisition of certain Yukos assets in 2007, but the connection—curious actions by one of Sherbovich’s old schoolmates—is tenuous. Six years later, according to anonymous sources inside Vkontakte, Sechin endorsed Sherbovich’s Vkontakte stock purchase over a rival effort by Konstantin Malofeev, another Russian entrepreneur. Sherbovich, for his part, denies that Sechin had anything to do with UCP’s bid on VK stock.

Vedomosti’s investigation, which begins with bold questions about Sechin’s potential role in Durov’s ouster, ends with a dull account of Sherbovich’s love of fly-fishing. Yes, dear readers, Sherbovich even owns an elite fishing lodge on the Ponoi River in Russia, where on different occasions he’s hosted dignitaries like Dmitri Medvedev and Dick Cheney.

And there sits Pavel Durov, maybe in Berlin, maybe in Dubai, writing in English on Facebook about his homelessness, and cheering sanctions by the United States against the man who apparently defeated him and forced him from Russia. Vedomosti, the country’s leading liberal newspaper, has studied the diabolical alliance that brought down “Russia’s Zuckerberg” and reporters have confirmed that Ilya Sherbovich really likes fishing.

Durov once joked about resigning from Vkontakte by quoting a famous line by Douglas Adams, “So long and thanks for all the fish!” Perhaps Durov could have stayed at his job, had he and Sherbovich ever shared any real fish.

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